Friday, July 13, 2007

Relevance, Consequence, and Adolescents

In Dana Huff's post about Web 2.0, she linked to a longer post by Clay, who discusses the importance of having students do things that matter. And while I agree with that, I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions that he draws from it.

Clay gave his freshmen (I think!) classes an assignment "to take action addressing whatever 'Yahoo-caused' problem in the world disturbed them." He encouraged them to "think big." The students identified global warming (I'm curious how the group arrived at that decision: Consensus? A vote? Was it unanimous the first time around? Did they compare various problems?) as "The Big Issue affecting their futures."

But Clay noticed something interesting. The students kept voicing a particular concern: "Nobody's doing anything about it, and we know it's a problem."

Now, my first instinct would've been to correct them. (Look, if NOBODY was doing ANYTHING about this problem, you wouldn't even know about it, for one thing.) Could they really be that ignorant? That uninformed? Why would they say something like that?

As I reflected on that, it occurred to me that the students' concern, taken literally, is invalid. (Sorry, guys.) It is simply not true that "nobody's doing anything." However, as an example of hyperbole, it has far greater merit. Plus, well... fifteen-year-olds are REALLY prone to exaggeration! Everything is loike, uh MAGGOD, loike, SO critical!

And we do need people like that. We need passion and intensity. And it's definitely better to have that intensity focused on something that really matters, rather than on what Girl 1 said to Girl 2 about Girl 3. However, to be effective, it needs to be guided very carefully.

I suspect that there are other, more reasonable and more personal concerns behind what they're saying. For one, if nobody is doing anything, the responsibility (and blame) for the problem - or at least for the lack of a solution - is on some comfortablly nebulous "them." Somehow "nobody is doing anything" translates easier into "they're not doing anything" than it does to "we're not doing anything." This unwillingness to accept responsibility corresponds to the "victim" mentality I see so often in my freshmen, who "couldn't" do their homework because baseball practice went late, for example.

Related is the worry that "I can't do anything about it anyway/nothing that I do will matter." This is the primary reason I think it's not a good idea to have students tackle something like global warming as their first problem-solving project. Measurable success will be limited - at best. Our society primes us for immediate gratification, and unless or until students are weaned from that expectation, they will see a lack of instantaneous success as equivalent to failure.

As a result, it might be better to start off by encouraging students to identify a smaller problem, particularly one in their school or town. A smaller issue is likely to provide clearer short-term results, and one that is local will allow the students to experience their successes first-hand. If students set goals, work toward them, and have a clearly successful result, that experience will help to counter both the lack of accepting responsibility and also the learned helplessness. Students will then be better prepared to take on goals that will take longer to reach or offer only progress toward a solution, rather than a nice, clear-cut solution.

Finally, I think that the focus on Big Issues can be misleading. If you build a shelter for the homeless, does that make up for the times that you said "hi, how are you?" and didn't bother to listen to the answer? Or the times that you lied to your parents (or your kids)? Or the times that you spread nasty information about someone (whether or not it was true)?

I'm not saying don't try to save the environment (or bring about world peace, or end starvation and malnutrition). I'm saying don't focus on Big Issues so much that you ignore the little, everyday problems that are all around every one of us. (And they are soooo easy to ignore, because they're so little!)

It's possible to do both. We SHOULD do both. We can make the world a better place in little ways at the same time as we work toward an Enormous Goal.

4 comments:

mrschili said...

I very much enjoyed this post - may I link it?

I think that a lot of the problems we're seeing in society in general has to do with a decided lack of personal responsibility. People feel, whether they've been taught to believe it or because it's easy, that they have little control over what happens, anyway, so why should they care? Agency is not high on the list of character traits for your average American, and this scares the hell out of me.

I know it will likely never happen, at least, not in my generation, but I think that educating for character is important and we should be doing more of it (which is to say that we should be doing it - my understanding is that it's not something that's even considered as a topic for discussion). We need to teach ethics in middle and high schools. We need to teach civics and citizenship. We need to compel students to volunteer as part of their education. We NEED to do these things, or our society is going to change into something we're not very happy with - I think that change is already happening.

Clix said...

Wow! Yes, please do. Thank you. :D

Teaching for character is very hard, though. Well, the TEACHING isn't hard, but the agreeing on what character traits should be taught (and trusting the teachers to do so) seems to be. We have "Character Ed" in our school, and alas, it's a joke.

I hope that my students learn a LITTLE bit about character from things like... well, when one says, "just give us all As! We won't tell!" and another replies, "duh, the principal would KNOW, genius!" and I point out that principal or no principal, it is WRONG to LIE, and therefore I try my best not to do it. Period. Yes, always. It is always wrong to lie. Sometimes it may be necessary - but that doesn't mean it's right.

I'm not sure that making students volunteer is the way to go, either. Then service is seen as yet another "hafta" that gets tossed aside as soon as they get out the school doors. OTOH... it's better than nothing...

Hm. That may be another post later on!

Clay Burell said...

Hi Clix,

Interesting post. A couple quick responses:

1) If I said "all" of my students decided that, I mis-spoke. Most of them did, though, in reflective open blogging homework. I didn't guide them at all. (Amusing proof is the kid who chose "dishonest advertising" because he was sick of his pizzas being delivered cold.)

Those who _did_ choose this topic weren't as uninformed or without support for their "nobody's doing anything" comment (which I don't think we have to take so literally, since it was conversation, and we're often imprecise in spontaneous discussion).

The most intelligent kid in the class cited the G-8 summit of the day before, in which the leading industrial nations disappointed the scientific community by pledging to make significant gains - by the year 2050. And he was literate enough about the science to know that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests we don't have that kind of time.

2. If you've read the whole string of posts in this month-long "think-aloud," you'll know that I'm not encouraging anybody to think they'll get "instant gratification" by solving the problem. On the contrary, it's the little steps we can take locally - and ask our schools to take - that actually _can_ give students immediate results. School and home lightbulbs, for example, could be replaced by energy efficient ones that save money at the same time, and reduce the school's "carbon footprint." For students to propose that, and in the best cases persuade their school and parents to make that simple change, would be the kind of personal responsibility and local action that could teach them real citizenship.

Over 200 US colleges and universities just signed a "carbon-neutral pledge" committed to making such small changes as part of a longer-term shift. So it's not a radical idea, or an unprecedented one. Our young people could lead k-12 schools to follow the universities' lead.

Thanks for thinking about this. I think we both agree that citizenship and responsibility are important things to encourage in our students, beyond mere informational and skills-learning. Citizenship's a dying (or is it dead?) American ideal. It's good to see us agree it shouldn't be.

Clay Burell said...

One last comment: to "make students volunteer" is a contradiction in terms. That's why I think community activity outside the classroom, and more and more in the real world, is the key.

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